Before examining the right to self-defense in Tennessee, it is important to understand what force and deadly force mean here. Force is defined as “compulsion by the use of physical power or violence.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-106.

Deadly force is defined as “the use of force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-611.

Stand Your Ground

Although the words “stand your ground” do not appear in the Tennessee Code, the laws relating to self-defense and the justifiable use of force are commonly known as “Stand Your Ground” laws. These laws authorize an individual to defend themselves against threats and perceived threats while in public, without first retreating. Specifically, the State of Tennessee recognizes a person’s right to use deadly force in self-defense to defend against the criminal use of deadly force against them. Moreover, Tennessee does not require a person to retreat before exercising defensive deadly force, so long as:

  1. An individual has a reasonable belief that there is an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury;
  2. The danger creating the belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury is real, or honestly believed to be real, at the time; and
  3. The belief of danger is founded upon reasonable grounds.

There are several common misconceptions about self-defense and the use of deadly force. First, while there is no duty to retreat before using force, one cannot be the initial aggressor and must only act in self-defense or in the defense of others. Next, the force employed must be equal to and proportionate to the threat. Third, if employing deadly force in self-defense, there must be a legitimate fear of imminent severe bodily injury or death.

If one is found to have unlawfully threatened or used deadly force in an unreasonable or unjustified manner, criminal charges can range from assault, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, or even some degree of homicide.

Castle Doctrine

In addition to Stand Your Ground laws, Tennessee has also adopted the Castle Doctrine, Just like the words “stand your ground,” the words “Castle Doctrine” do not appear in the Tennessee code. These laws relate to the justification of force used within your residence, dwelling, or vehicle. The ideas encompassed by the Castle Doctrine are found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-611(c), which states:

(c) Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury within a residence, business, dwelling or vehicle is presumed to have held a reasonable belief of imminent death or serious bodily injury to self, family, a member of the household or a person visiting as an invited guest, when that force is used against another person, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence, business, dwelling or vehicle, and the person using defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.

Tennessee extends the presumption of the Castle Doctrine to those within any of the following:

  1. “Residence” – a dwelling in which a person resides, either temporarily or permanently, or is visiting as an invited guest, or any dwelling, building or other appurtenance within the curtilage of the residence;
  2. “Dwelling” – a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, that has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed for or capable of use by people;
  3. “Business” – a commercial enterprise or establishment owned by a person as all or part of the person’s livelihood or is under the owner’s control or who is an employee or agent of the owner with responsibility for protecting persons and property and shall include the interior and exterior premises of the business; and
  4. “Vehicle” – any motorized vehicle that is self-propelled and designed for use on public highways to transport people or property.

It is important to remember that you will not have the presumption granted under the Castle Doctrine if the person against whom the deadly force was used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, business, residence, or vehicle. Nor will you have its protection if the person against whom the deadly force was used is a law enforcement officer who has entered in the performance of his or her lawful duties.

As always, if you have any questions on Tennessee’s laws regarding self-defense and use of force, please contact U.S. LawShield and ask to be connected to your Independent Program Attorney.


The preceding should not be construed as legal advice nor the creation of an attorney-client relationship. This is not an endorsement or solicitation for any service. Your situation may be different, so please contact your attorney regarding your specific circumstances. Because the laws, judges, juries, and prosecutors vary from location to location, similar or even identical facts and circumstances to those described in this presentation may result in significantly different legal outcomes. This presentation is by no means a guarantee or promise of any particular legal outcome, positive, negative, or otherwise.